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NR-1 - The US Navy's First Nuclear Powered,
Deep Submergence Submarine

Chapter 19 - Phoenix Rising

At least the NR-1 had a good starting point this time, and could begin its work at the place where it had found the F-14.  From the furrows made by the plane while it was dragged by the nets they could tell exactly the direction in which it had been moved.  The boat had already spent many hours scouting back along that track, and had found nothing.

No longer involved in trying to haul up the plane, the NR-1 could refine its search, and the starting point remained where the aircraft had been discovered.  A geographic area of high probability was determined, then divided into x-y grids on the plotting chart, and the search began.

It was a fact that the missile was still on the plane when it went overboard, but the same experts who guaranteed the Phoenix would still be attached had made another major error.  Because the Phoenix was such a top secret piece of weaponry, very little information about it was shared with the NR-1 officers during the briefing.  That need-to-know doctrine now stymied recovery effort because the submarine crew had not even been given a description of the missile, nor shown a photograph.  They had no idea of what it looked like.

So they had wasted many hours poking into the mud immediately around the fallen plane, hunting what they believed to be a small, sleek missile similar to the Sidewinder, which weighs only 190 pounds and is less than ten feet long.  The disturbed sea bottom easily could have swallowed something of that size.

Only when it became obvious that the Phoenix search would be a separate operation were the details passed along.  In sharp contrast to the Sidewinder, the explosive warhead of the Phoenix weighed 135 pounds by itself, and the missile’s overall weight was in excess of a thousand pounds.  It was thirteen feet in length and fifteen inches in diameter, and had tail fins that measured three feet across.  The chances were pretty small that something that size had slid out of sight into the muck.

Those broad, flat tail fins added to the location puzzle.  When the missile broke free of the plane, the fins would have helped it sail off on its own spinning course.  Once on the bottom, the big fins would have helped the currents, including Nolter’s powerful and repetitive maelstrom, roll it about.  It could be anywhere.

No matter how big or small it might be, no matter what its weight or shape, the crew of the NR-1 figured there was only one missile down there, if somebody else had not already snagged it.  Whatever they found would be the Phoenix.

*  *  *

The boat came to a hover about 25 feet off the bottom and began flying in methodical patterns.  There was no surface light 1,800 feet beneath the storm-tossed ocean waves, so all of the sub’s lights were on to pierce the obsidian blackness.  Two men lay prone in the view port area to personally examine the vast flats of mud, while the sonar scanned for objects in the distance.  Big rocks once again registered false alarms.

As the sour weather battered the topside support ships with gale force winds, the submarine “mowed the lawn,” as the crew called the tedious exercise of following the forward-and-back track.  At the end of each leg of the search, they extended the reach, pressing to cover a little bit more territory on every pass, for time had become critical.

Toby Warson, aware of the approaching deadline, had already called down instructions to bring the search to a close, but Holifield had coaxed him to allow a little more time, at least to allow completion of the current pattern.  Holifield, however, knew they had used up the clock.  November 1 was less than forty-eight hours away.

The current and former skippers of the NR-1 also realized that the crew had done arduous and continual duty since it submerged on October 21 to find the F-14, and were exhausted.  They had patrolled every possible patch of sea bottom without success, and it was time to report to Big Daddy, “We can’t find the Phoenix missile.”  The NR-1 swung into the final turn of an extended sweep that had lasted seventeen hours straight.

Once again, Frank Smith, at one of the view ports, caught an unexpected glimmer off to one side.  Something there!  He took a harder look.  From the distance, at the edge of the bubble of hazy light, lay an object that looked like a model rocket from his high school science class.

“I see it!” he shouted.  “I see the son of a bitch.  I see it!”

“What?” called back Mike Riegel, who was driving the boat.

“The missile!  I see the missile!”  Smith moved so quickly in his excitement that he bashed his head on the low overhead.  The newest enlisted man aboard, who had not been qualified to do anything yet on his maiden voyage except look out the window, had found the Phoenix missile.  As Riegel brought the boat close, Smith got a better look at his find, and whispered, “Jeez, it’s big!”

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Missing Phoenix missile as found on the bottom
(Courtesy of Capt. Allison J. Holifield, USN-Ret.)

Holifield ordered the boat to stop and hover, then lower cautiously to the bottom so as not to kick up a curtain of mud.  The forward TV camera was trained on the missile, and he could make out the words stenciled on the side of the Phoenix: DO NOT ROLL, TUMBLE OR DROP.

The discovery set alarm bells ringing in the recovery ships, Washington, and London, and Toby Warson on the Sunbird, was suddenly inundated by unwanted advice from surface fleet officers about how to raise the missile.  They did not understand the NR-1, but wanted to be back in the game when credit was handed out.  “A bunch of Airdales are trying to tell me how to do this and that,” he complained in a call to Admiral Joe Williams, the COMSUBLANT.  Williams, who was determined not to let the turf war erupt again and jeopardize the mission, started making Rickover-style telephone calls.  Within twenty minutes, the irritating suggestions ceased, and Warson began receiving only the technical data that he requested.

*  *  *

The NR-1 babysat the Phoenix for hours while a plan was formulated.  Retrieving the missile by itself had not been part of the original recovery plan, but now that it had been located, the navy wanted it brought back.

The missile seemed to be relatively undamaged, except for a hermetically sealed collar located just behind the warhead.  That section contained the electronic brains of the missile and had been crushed like a tin can by the deepwater pressure, lending still more unknowns to the situation.

Fail-safe mechanisms encased in that area prevented the Phoenix from being automatically armed until it reached a certain speed or had traveled a safe distance from the plane that fired it.  If those important controls had been damaged in the accident, the risk factor was substantially increased.

Holifield would not go after the missile if he thought it would endanger his men and his ship, but no one knew what would happen until he actually grabbed it.  No matter what decisions were being made elsewhere about this recovery, after carefully examining the missile, he was confident that the safeties were still intact.  They would go for it.

Toby Warson made an emergency call to the United States, and a team of Explosive Ordnance Disposal experts was hustled aboard a plane for an emergency flight to Scotland.  Experts would be needed to finally secure the powerful weapon.

Although the decision had been made, the sub could not simply grab the Phoenix and go, for other factors were involved.  Below, Nolter’s Maelstrom continued to pelt the sub periodically and added more risk to recovering the missile.  The men on the NR-1 would have to work around it.  Further, the navy wanted the missile to reach the surface under the cover of darkness to limit spying from the Soviet intelligence ships.

The vessels of the surface recovery task force closed in on a spot above the NR-1, and when the next maelstrom passed, Joe Nolter and Mike Riegel cautiously maneuvered the boat, guided by television cameras and men at the view ports, until it was centered exactly over the missile.  Both the missile and the submarine’s bow were pointing in the same direction.  Then the massive tines in the belly of the boat were opened, and the boat settled deeper, inch by inch.

The open fingers were designed to lift much heavier loads, but it plucked up the missile as gingerly as if it were an egg.  Holifield made sure that Riegel and Nolter took their time locking it in place, for no one wanted to take a chance on crushing or losing the weapon.

Once secure, the NR-1 made a slow-motion climb to the distant surface, carrying in its belly a missile that contained enough explosive power to destroy the entire ship.  The submarine broke onto the open sea just before midnight on October 30, in the midst of the salvage task force that had circled about to block the Soviet trawlers.

Warson was on the bridge of the Sunbird, which was rolling so heavily on the waves that he once again felt the strange onset of seasickness that sometimes affects submariners when they pull surface duty.  There was little light, because storm clouds tearing through the skies obscured the moon.  He saw the NR-1 rise in a sudden flash of foam, but when that wash died, the sail of the tiny ship was only a small, dark spot on the ocean surface, almost invisible on the heaving sea.

Warson had to assign someone to actually dive into the chill and roiling midnight water, swim beneath the NR-1, and check out the missile.  Of all the people aboard, he deemed himself to be best equipped to do that job.  He was a qualified navy diver, and he knew the ship and the situation as well as anyone could.  The heavy lift device had been installed during his command and he knew how to avoid the unshielded “hot” radiation area around the reactor compartment, which was close to the tines.  Together with Al Holifield, he could determine the next step.  Rather than risk the life of another diver, the commander of the entire operation strapped on scuba gear and plunged into the North Atlantic waves.

Once below, swimming alone in the sea, he examined the long white missile from tip to tail by the narrow beam of a handheld light.  Its white shell gleamed from where it was nestled snugly within the grasp of the lift device.  The Phoenix was secure, and although it still looked menacing, Warson was satisfied that it was safe.  It was time for him to move aside.

He went back aboard the Sunbird and sent their divers over the side.  They attached special clamps around the missile and tied them to sturdy lines that were ferried back to the support ship.  When everyone was clear, the NR-1 opened the tines and the big missile swung away on its cradle of ropes and clamps and was hoisted aboard the fantail of the Sunbird.

The only remaining problem was to make it completely safe.  The demolitions experts had not arrived from the States, and a long series of complicated radio messages about connecting alligator clips to certain circuits provided only rough guidance.

There is a strong belief in the navy that a veteran chief petty officer can do almost anything, and now one stepped forward and took over the job of romancing the explosives package, although he had never before seen a Phoenix missile.  He studied the engineering drawings, talked things over with experts on shore, and declared, “Okay, I can do this.”

With Warson looking over his shoulder and everyone else cleared away from the fantail, the chief picked up some wire cutters and, without hesitation, snipped some circuits deep in the guts of the Phoenix missile.  He then turned to Warson and reported, “Well, sir, it didn’t go off.”

His name may have been lost to history, but his actions polished the halo of the chiefs a little brighter that night.  Chiefs can indeed do anything.

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Al Holifield, the third NR-1 OIC, and his predecessor, Toby Warson, flank Sunbird CO Ed Craig beside the recovered Phoenix missile.
(Courtesy of Capt. Allison J. Holifield, USN-Ret)

*  *  *


The black headline over an Associated Press story from London jumped out at readers of the Day newspaper in New London, Connecticut, on Monday morning, November 1, 1976.  Pictures would follow in coming days showing some of the officers and men of the NR-1 and the Sunbird posed around the missile, with an American flag waving in the background.  “Once in a while a submarine makes headlines and warrants extra attention, if not awe.  Such an exceptional mission has just been completed by the NR-1, a small nuclear research submarine crewed by only five men,” an editorial in the Day declared.  “All in all, it was a great piece of work.  Even the Russians must be applauding, however grudgingly.”

The unexpected, joyous telling of the great adventure was notable for several reasons.  As one news report noted, the failure of the F-14 recovery had been “a bit of an embarrassment to the navy.” So plucking the missile from 1,800 feet beneath the surface was trumpeted as a huge success, and quieted the fact that the fighter plane was still down there.  Moreover, it was a substantial intelligence coup to show the missile lying dry and in one piece aboard the Sunbird, for that let the Soviet Union know the United States Navy possessed a boat that could operate at depths unreachable by any submarine in their own inventory.  It was something else for them to worry about.

Importantly, the stories and photographs brought the NR-1 out from the dark world in which it normally sailed.  Details, including calling it a “research submarine” and saying it had a crew of only five, kept much of the disguise in place, but the boat was now a visible entity that demanded watching by other fleets.  How long had it been around?  How deep could it really go?  And if it could get that missile up intact, what else could it do?

By the time the newspapers appeared, the Sunbird already was towing the NR-1 back to Holy Loch.  The navy had abandoned all hope of getting the F-14 up in one piece, because trying to haul up a twenty-ton plane by a single strand of cable in those heavy seas was never going to work.  The job was redesigned for pure muscle, not finesse, so the NR-1 was no longer needed.

A British trawler was hired to simply haul it in, much as if it were a school of fish.  The Boston Halifax snagged the plane in her steel trawl net twice, and both times the net broke and the plane again toppled back to the ocean floor.

Two West German salvage boats were brought in for a try.  The “heavy grab ship” Taurus and the work ship Twyford spun out steel cable between them, let it sink to the bottom, and pulled the slack cable through the area until it snagged on the plane.  With the Taurus maintaining a steady position, the Twyford sailed in circles to wrap the plane tightly in a shroud of steel.  A fifty-ton shackle was lowered to tighten the knot, and the Taurus lifted the whole package to within five hundred feet of the surface.  It was towed and dragged eighty miles into waters that were shallow and calm enough for hard hat divers to get at it.

On November 11, nearly two months after it plunged from the Kennedy deck and eleven days after the deadline, the remains of F-14 number 159588 broke the surface, almost an unrecognizable chunk of junk from being bounced, dropped, and dragged along the bottom for so long.  The wreckage was sent to Norfolk, virtually useless to the investigators trying to determine why the throttle stuck and caused the accident in the first place.  The future of all F-14s remained in jeopardy until the problem could be fixed.  Since the plane was utterly destroyed, the NR-1 photographs of the switches, gauges, and the open cockpit became the primary source for the information needed to identify and correct the problem and get the F-14s safely back into the skies.

The long and complicated operation had cost $2.4 million, which an article in Reader’s Digest several months later judged to be “a small price to pay to keep invaluable secrets in American hands.”

*  *  *

About the time of the recovery, former nuclear submarine officer Jimmy Carter was elected president of the United States - a development that guaranteed continued enthusiastic White House support for his mentor, Hyman Rickover, by now a full admiral.  In Scotland, on the windswept deck of the Sunbird, another leader was also being put in place.  The delayed change of command ceremonies finally were held for the NR-1, and Al Holifield handed the job over to thirty-five-year-old Mike McQuown.

Holifield was the third consecutive skipper of the smallest nuclear submarine in the navy whose future career would be a series of successes, a trait that marked most of the men who served aboard the NR-1.  He flew back to the United States immediately after the brief ceremony and began three months of study at Naval Reactors to learn the propulsion plant of his new ship, the USS Pogy, a full-size submarine that dwarfed the NR-1 and had a completely different reactor.  He would lead the Pogy for two years, proceed to command the Gold Crew of the USS Ethan Allen, and then rotate into the slot of intelligence officer on the COMSUBPAC staff.  Holifield rounded out his career as commander of the Naval Intelligence Support Center in the Pentagon.  His final boss, prior to retirement in 1991, was Admiral Dwaine Griffith.

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LCDR Mike McQuown.
(Courtesy of Capt. Allison J. Holifield, USN-Ret.)

LCDR McQuown took over a ship that was in dry dock.  After the long tour working on the SOSUS network, the grueling search and salvage effort for the missing plane and missile, the underwater cyclones of Nolter’s Maelstrom, and the punishment of the North Atlantic, the NR-1 had a number of problems that needed repair and replacement before it could return home.  The work was done at Holy Loch against a background of success, for the little boat had proven its capabilities even to its most severe critics and by doing so ensured its own future.  The events of the past few months guaranteed funding, not the scrap heap.

The new captain, however, represented a major change, for he was not the usual low-key individual who led this unique crew.

McQuown was an intense, chain-smoking workaholic who delighted in tearing apart and putting together his MG sports car, survived mostly on coffee, and was entranced by the early computers.  “You don’t understand,” he would tell people who were baffled by his passion for computers, which were steadily becoming smaller and more powerful.  “One day everybody will have one of these on their desk!”  No one questioned his integrity, his ability, or his brains, for no man was chosen to serve aboard the NR-1 as a reward for being stupid.  The Nebraskan had the same birthday, January 27, as Admiral Rickover, whom he considered to be not only God, but the entire Holy Trinity.  They also shared an abrasive style of management that worked for Rickover, but proved to be McQuown’s Achilles’ heel.

Although he thought highly of his crew, his abrupt command style grated on some of the men from the beginning, particularly the Sperry field engineers.  He believed his crew was experienced enough to handle the boat on their own and felt the civilians were more of a hindrance than a help.  In the space of only a few months, both Fred DeGrooth and Roger Sherman would ask to be transferred from the boat that they had helped design, build, and run.  Sherman stayed with Sperry at Electric Boat, but moved to the Trident program.  Fred DeGrooth left Sperry and went to work for Electric Boat, where he remained assigned to the NR-1 project, but in a different capacity.

McQuown had been stung and embarrassed when ordered to stand aside and let Al Holifield run the F-14 mission, one of the most important jobs ever given to the NR-1.  And although he played an important role, he had been a supernumerary, just another member of the crew, and now as captain, he felt the need to prove something, at least to himself.  When the boat cast off from Holy Loch and headed home, the new skipper was determined that his ship would be run with the precision of a Swiss clock, even on a milk run like being towed from Scotland to Connecticut.

The Sunbird turned her blunt nose into the Atlantic in the first week of December beneath a canopy of dark, angry skies.  From her stern, an incredibly strong double-braided Samson nylon line, seven inches in diameter, was hooked to a heavy ball that was held intractably snug in the cowcatcher on the bow of the NR-1.

Ahead lay some 2,500 long miles of groaning, towering waves, whistling wind, and the bitter cold of a gale that was growing to hurricane strength, and as always when caught in big seas, the boat rolled and pitched, even before reaching open water.  The tow ship might have to ride it out on the surface, but the NR-1 did not have to.  As soon as possible, McQuown took the submarine beneath the horrid weather, until it reached sanctuary at a comfortable depth of about 150 feet.  Down there, he felt, there would be nothing but smooth sailing.

*  *  *

About a week after the NR-1 left Scotland, a young sailor hurried through the corridors of Admiral Rickover’s charm school in Crystal City, outside of Alexandria, Virginia, until he found the right door, knocked, and stuck his head inside.  “Commander Holifield, there’s a telephone call for you from Captain Darby,” he said.

Al Holifield, studying in the prospective commanding officers’ course, picked up the phone.  “Hi, Jack,” he told his old shipmate, with whom he was staying.  Darby was stationed at the Pentagon.  “What’s up?”  Darby curtly told him to hold the line, and a new voice came on, that of Vice Admiral R. L. J. Long, the deputy chief of naval operations for submarine warfare.

“The reactor has failed on the NR-1,” Long tersely told him.  “What can we do?  What can we do?”



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